Last updateWed, 20 Sep 2017 9am

Your Health

Local sports docs treat elite as well as average Joes

The first thing you notice when walking into the Palo Alto Medical Foundation's Sports Medicine Center are the walls. They're decorated unlike any you'll find in a typical doctor's office. No serene paintings of the seashore or cute photos of puppies here.

These walls are more reminiscent of a boy's bedroom or college dorm. Framed sports posters adorn each wall, sharing space with medical diplomas. Superstar athletes like Barry Bonds, Jerry Rice and Steve Young stare you in the face.

These posters aren't mere signs of admiration, though. The featured athletes are actually some of the foundation's patients.

The PAMF specializes in sports injuries and treats many of the finest amateur and professional athletes in the Bay Area. Team doctors for the San Francisco Giants, Oakland Raiders, San Jose Sharks, San Francisco 49ers and Stanford University are on staff.

Sometimes athletes from outside the area even fly in to see one of the center's eight physicians.

But you don't need to slug a baseball 400 feet, outrun a 240-pound linebacker or block a speeding puck to get an appointment with one of these doctors.

The PAMF is also receptive to recreational athletes and those competing in high school or youth leagues. In fact, a majority of the center's patients fit into one of these categories.

"We see a lot of pro and college athletes," said Dr. Warren King, "but the bulk of our practice consists of treating the weekend-warrior type who works 40 hours a week."

The PAMF takes care of casual joggers, avid rugby players and everyone in between. Even sports enthusiasts who are injured doing something non-athletic qualify.

And the physicians at the center swear they don't treat these people any differently than a pro or college athlete.

"There's not much difference between athletes and most active recreational people out there," said Dr. Sally Harris. "So the elite athlete and the average person get the same treatment."

Said King: "Everyone's joints are important, whether you're a pro athlete or not."

Harris pointed out that advances in sports medicine aimed at helping elite athletes now benefit recreational athletes, as well.

"Arthroscopic surgery continues to get better and better," said Harris, a primary-care physician who tends to many of Stanford's top athletes.

King, the head orthopedist for the Raiders and Giants, said he's amazed by how far sports medicine has come in the last 10 years.

"The advancements are awesome," he said. "We can do transplants from human donors to replace things like ligaments and bones. Someday there will be biological replacements. It will be phenomenal."

But most of today's athletic injuries can be treated without going under the knife.

"A minority of the problems are surgical," Harris said. "Most injuries can be taken care of with rehabilitation."

And those patients who do require surgery are almost always able to return to their sport of choice.

"Most injuries are repairable," Harris said, "and the typical athlete is able to come back."

Of course, some of the devastating injuries sustained in contact sports like football, rugby and hockey are the exception to this rule.

King said he once saw a rugby player die on the field from a blow and has also known of football players who have been paralyzed. Ironically, the very helmets used to protect football players usually cause such injuries.

"Modern football helmets have created a lot of neck injuries," King said. "Players are leading with their heads, which is something players in the old days didn't do because they wore leather helmets."

Hockey injuries can also be severe, especially those stemming from the brawls that are often featured on TV.

"Bare-fisted fighting is the worse," said King, who assists PAMF colleague Dr. Arthur Ting with the Sharks. "I can't believe it's allowed. It would be a felony assault outside of the rink."

While such sports can be brutal, a non-contact sport actually tops all of them for the number of injuries sustained.

"Women's gymnastics is No. 1," said Harris, the team doctor for the Stanford gymnastics team. "The impact from dismounting the equipment is tremendous and gymnasts take some hard falls."

In general, the most common sports injuries occur in the knees and shoulders, according to King and Harris. The majority of these problems - such as sprains and tendonitis - are due to overuse.

Both doctors agree that at least half of all sports injuries can be prevented.

"People commonly make training errors," King said. "They don't always warm-up properly, especially when they get older."

Harris cites the failure to get over a past injury, pushing too hard too soon and improper footwear as other errors athletes make. Such mistakes may lead to a trip to a doctors' office filled with sports icons - both pictured and real.

The PAMF's main office is located at 913 Emerson Street in Palo Alto. The center also has satellite offices in Los Altos, Sunnyvale and Fremont. For more information, call 853-2943.

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